How many languages do you need to get on?

Easterner   Monday, August 09, 2004, 15:04 GMT
Hi everybody. I have been wondering what is the minimum number of languages you need to speak to get on in most countries of the world? At the moment I speak four international languages: English, French, German, and I could improve my Russian with a little effort. This is sort of enough to get on well in Europe and the former Soviet Union. I am considering taking up Spanish (it would not be difficult with my knowledge of French) and would like to get a fair knowledge of Mandarin Chinese. Do you think that can be enough to communicate with most people from all continents? I have also considered learning Arabic, but as I know it is a fairly complex language in terms of vocabulary, and my experience is that many Arabs speak English or French.

Any suggestions would be welcome.
Dulcinea del Toboso   Tuesday, August 10, 2004, 00:09 GMT
Spanish would be a good choice certainly.

With Arabic, there is the situation of diglossia, which has been mentioned here a few times. What this means is that there are two forms of the language that exist side-by-side and simultaneously. One form is dialectical which is one's native language and which is spoken over a region (such as Syria-Iraq-Lebanon), but is not understood over the entire Arab world. The other form, "Modern Standard Arabic", is what is usually taught to foreigners. It is the language of newspapers, magazines, TV, and official announcements. It is not a language any Arab speaks natively - they must learn it in school. Arabs do not use it to speak to one another unless their own respective dialects make normal conversation difficult. If you learn MSA, Arabs will understand you, but you will be speaking to them in the same register as a governmental announcement, not in a colloquial, dialectical register.

It is somewhat similar to the difference in asking:

"What kind of car did John buy?" vs.
"Which automobile did John purchase?"

However, the difference between the dialectical Arabic and MSA is even more pronounced than in the example shown above, because the diglossic differences also affect the grammar and other parts of speech in addition to the nouns and verbs. Perhaps a better example would have been to contrast biblical English with everyday English. So, what I am saying is that MSA limits you to a much more formal register of the language and to get closer to Arab people and their culture will require you to learn one or more of the dialects.

Though I could be mistaken, I believe the major dialects are those of:

- Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Jordan
- Saudi Arabia and the gulf states
- Egypt
- Libya and Morocco

So, I would say a Syrian and Lebanese would have no problem communicating in their native Arabic, but a Syrian and Moroccan would likely have to resort to MSA to be understood.

The good news is that teaching dialectical forms of Arabic is becoming more common in schools and in books now. I have seen both Egyptian and Syrian Arabic being taught.
Easterner   Tuesday, August 10, 2004, 08:15 GMT
Dulcinea, thank you for this information, it was very enlightening. As a matter of fact I have little opportunity to practise Arabic with a native speaker in Hungary, as I perceive that would be the best way to get proficiency in the language. I may start with learning the Arabic script first, in order to be able to read texts to have some idea of the language (reading authentic written texts usually helps me get a grasp of any foreign language). Then I can go on to learn the basics of the spoken language.
Sanja   Wednesday, August 11, 2004, 17:20 GMT
I think English is quite enough to get on in the most countries, because wherever you go I'm sure you will find a lot of people who speak English well enough to communicate.
Mi5 Mick   Thursday, August 12, 2004, 06:10 GMT
I agree -- English -- especially if you're just wandering the globe, spending a week here and a week there. There are so many languages that you could spend a lifetime just going beyond the basics of each. Unless you decide to spend a prolonged period of time in any one country or are surrounded by speakers of a particular language, learning extra languages for the sake of doing so, is almost futile. With its genericness, you could learn Latin for the intellectual discipline and make use of its spin-offs into other European languages, but beyond that, an unused/unpracticed language in your life is as good as a dead one.
Paul   Monday, August 16, 2004, 18:53 GMT
Thanks for the information on MSA Arabic.
I always wondered why so few people bothered to learn Arabic, when it is one of the more interesting and available European vacation spots.
English, French, German, Russian, Arabic, Mandarin Chinese, Spanish and Portugese are useful languages, and are used in many places outside their native lands.
Arabic is very common for religous purposes around the world.
I think Swahili is the only other major language with a big influence.
Maybe Japanese and Italian. They have a big population.